It’s thanks to Dad that girls are more cautious than boys

Part of the reason boys tear around recklessly having more accidents while girls are more cautious is no doubt due to their biological differences. But it could also have to do with parents treating young boys and girls differently. Now Lisa Hagan and Janet Kuebli have found tentative evidence that it is principally fathers, as opposed to mothers, who are responsible for treating girls and boys differently.

The researchers filmed 80 young children (average age 4 years) completing a mini obstacle course. The children were accompanied by one of their parents: there were 27 mothers and sons; 22 mothers and daughters; 13 fathers and sons; and 18 fathers and daughters. The researchers focused on how the parents behaved during their children’s completion of two key obstacles: a five foot long beam suspended 1 and ½ feet off the ground; and a bridge (with safety railings) linking two ladders. The parents were told the study was investigating motor development in children.

In terms of how close they stayed to the children, and whether they shadowed their actions, the mothers’ behaviour appeared similar whether they were with a son or daughter. By contrast, fathers with daughters tended to stand closer and shadowed their daughters’ actions more closely, than did fathers with sons.

The researchers said: “The results from this study support the role of fathers as important gender socialising agents, in that it was fathers, not mothers, who differentially monitored their sons and daughters during risky situations”. In other words, Dads mollycoddle their daughters.

Hagan, L.K. & Kuebli, J. (2007). Mothers’ and fathers’ socialisation of preschoolers’ physical risk taking. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28, 2-14.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.